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Hardware, software tools and people are required to implement an IT project. But how do you get these disparate elements to work together seamlessly? A good manager using a proven management process is an essential element. But, tools such as project-management systems provide a control panel that enables project managers — on the customer or the service provider side — to allocate resources, manage workflow, collaborate, check versions, track deadlines and govern projects.
While corporate-sourcing managers know what benefits they can get from using a project-management system in the ordinary course of IT initiatives, they may not be adequately informed of the necessity of such systems in global services delivery. In an offshore-outsourcing arrangement, the project manager — often in a Program Management Office — is required to track multiple projects and collaborate with geographically dispersed teams into which he has low visibility.
Historically, outsourcing customers relied upon commercial software to manage projects. But now there are new, low-cost or even free options, including open-source project management systems and software, offered by service providers. But customers need to consider whether these alternatives can manage multiple projects, enable collaboration and ensure that deadlines are met with quality deliverables.
It’s easy to understand why a service provider would seek to differentiate itself by offering customers proprietary project-management software. This could save the customer the hassle of purchasing or integrating third-party project-management software. By relying upon the service provider’s product, there’s no question the two sides will be on the "same page". But there is a serious question of how relying upon a service provider’s product will help customers juggle projects in a multisourced environment. The money customers save by not purchasing third-party software may flow into the administrative overhead of learning and deploying multiple project-management software products.
Yet, the advent of project-management software provided by suppliers is not without skeptics. "The downside — I really see two elements," explains Eugene Kublanov, VP, neoIT, an advisory firm specializing in services globalization. "First, in a multisourced environment, a client would be forced to use multiple tools. And second, companies normally use a package already for their internal projects; employees know and have been trained on that package. It would be counter-productive to tell them to put that product aside and get retrained and start using a service provider’s." Kublanov says that some service providers have accounted for this incongruity by providing data hooks between their proprietary project-management software and commercially available products.
Manage multiple projects
The business requirements that dictate project plans are constantly in flux, both for the client and service provider.
While a customer may be managing only a single offshore project, the service provider will at no point be working on just one project — it will have multiple customers. Or, the customer could be offshoring more than one project to the same vendor. Or, the customer could be sending projects to multiple vendors onshore and offshore.
Customers must discover how the provider proposes to help them manage multiple projects simultaneously. No customer should simply rely upon claims by its suppliers — there’s too much at stake in the way of quality and revenue if a provider is unable to manage or help the customer track what’s happening.
Multiple tasks are best managed through a project-management system, thanks to its dashboard administrative feature. Visible to the customer and the service provider, dashboards call attention to parts of the project that require immediate attention (For example: they could be suffering from bugs or may require more input) and resolution.
Most dashboards utilize intuitive color codes, typically red and green (or sometimes a cautionary amber) — red implying cause for alarm. In case of an issue, a project manager on the customer side can call attention by marking it as critical, which will show up as a red mark on the project dashboard. Once the issue is solved, the service provider will assign a green color to it, which too will be visible on the dashboard.
Some tools, such as the one used by India’s TCS, go a step further and even have a color code for projects that require proactive action. Service providers can solve issues before they arise (predictive analysis), resulting in maintained quality.
TCS uses this tool to monitor the 500-odd projects for a large global customer with multiple business units. "I can get a quick health check of the 500-odd projects on the Project Summary Cockpit. This enables me to focus on the right areas and take necessary action," says Ashok Pai, the operations leader for the relationship.
EPAM Systems, a leading Russian service provider, manages several hundred projects. "We support about 300 simultaneous projects with our PMC [Project Management Center]," says Arkady Dobkin, CEO, EPAM Systems.
No one questions whether the project-management software enables administrative confidence. The dashboards are simple and intuitive — color-coding is a universal language that cuts through language, culture and time zones.
Use offline collaboration
Collaboration starts from day one of a project engagement and extends through the maintenance phase. Collaboration can be real time, using systems such as instant messaging and Netmeeting, or offline, which does not require simultaneous participation.
In global services delivery, collaboration can take one of three scenarios: between the customer’s and the service provider’s teams; between the service providers’ teams working at different customer sites; and between multiple suppliers in the case of a multisourcing deal. In all the cases, since the teams may be located at different locations and working across time zones, it is offline, not as much real time, collaboration that is important.
"It is offline collaboration that facilitates effective global collaboration and delivery, which are typical to outsourcing scenarios," says Ben Gaucherin, CTO of Sapient.
Offline systems store all data (builds, bugs, discussions) on a central server, which the customer or service provider(s) can access at any time to compare versions. "All data is archived so that if one needs to know why something was particularly done, he can search through the archives," explains Dr Gautam Shroff, VP, Technology Programs, TCS.
Examples of offline collaboration systems are document repositories, version-control systems, mailing-list managers, discussion forums, Wikis and bug trackers. Of these, two are particularly useful in offshoring setups.
Version-control system. A version-control system is used when files, like those of the project builds, are likely to change frequently. It is particularly useful in follow-the-sun setups, wherein teams working from different locations around the globe build the project during their working hours. Version-control systems maintain a repository of the project files across all the modifications so that teams across locations can figure out the modifications made (at the code level) to a project by the other teams. In the case of a bug, the teams can revert to the older, working versions of the code. Since most offline collaboration systems have a web browser-based frontend to access data, this can be done by simply firing up a web browser.
Mailing lists managers (MLM). Email is no doubt a low-cost and the most-used medium to communicate across distributed teams. But, its setup has to be customized for large teams working across different networks. An MLM is useful in an offshore scenario because:
Response to an email sent through a mailing list is received by all members of the team across the locations
Umbrella lists can be created for communication across all the mailing lists. All emails and their responses, which are sent through an umbrella list, are received by members of all the lists (teams)
MLMs have integrated archives that store emails across all the lists. These archives can be accessed anytime, anywhere and using any computer.
Because multiple teams are involved in global service operations, archiving is critical. "Any discussions on the projects happen on a mailing list. We don’t discuss across the table or a cubicle," says TCS’ Dr Shroff.
Offline collaboration works better for global service operations, mainly because everything is documented for reference, anytime and from anywhere.
Quality of deliverables
Standards such as CMM-I assess whether the process of project management is efficient enough to ensure quality and time-bound delivery. Certifications are even more important in global services delivery because it provides a guarantee about the service provider’s processes, which the customer cannot otherwise gauge sitting many thousands of miles away.
It is the quality concerns of the customer that have driven many service providers to develop and improve project-management systems. TCS, for example, has been driven by the needs of the quality certifications to build and improve its project-management system.
Referring to TCS’ win of last year’s mega ABN Amro deal, K Ananth Krishnan, VP, TCS says, "Our software-delivery processes and the project-management tools proved our ability to manage the global delivery model. This was the secret sauce and key differentiator that won us this large outsourcing deal." ABN Amro signed a five-year contract with TCS that will generate over Euro 200 million of revenue for TCS.
Another customer, SilverTrain, which helps companies leverage business information, cites EPAM’s project-management system as a tool that is robust enough to influence a company’s decision to choose EPAM. "EPAM’s system facilitates the entire project cycle and is well integrated," says Paul Jones, Senior Consultant, SilverTrain.
Project-management systems help service providers achieve high-level quality model certifications, which provides customers with a higher comfort level in sourcing projects.
Challenges of implementation. Security, integration and accessibility are three critical areas that a corporate sourcing manager must consider when evaluating a supplier’s project-management system.
Security. Project-management systems house sensitive customer data — source code, databases, documents such as agreements and budgets. In a multi-vendor environment, the system can also record the details of the involvement with multiple vendors. Any theft of such data will be a theft of crucial assets. Depending on legal recourse is not a good idea in an offshore setup — laws against digital theft are different across countries, and even nonexistent in some.
There are two approaches to achieving security: Closed, selective access; and open, selective denial. These must be coupled with comprehensive logging to enable you to track what users are doing and trace the culprit in case of a security lapse.
In the first approach, by default access to the system is locked, and later access to its various areas is allowed selectively. This is something that Wipro bases the security of its project-management system on. "For security reasons, we do not allow anyone to log into our project management system directly. The customers are made available only the data pertaining to their projects by exporting the data into their databases," says Krishna M, Technical Manager, Wipro.
In the second approach, by default the system is accessible, and it is configured to allow selective denial. Using roles and permission management, access is denied to areas that do not pertain to the customer’s project. EPAM uses this security method."The security model for our web-based system is role-based security. Users must have permissions to access particular information within the project," says Dobkin.
In brief, roles and permission management in a project-management system works as follows:
User accounts are created with default roles (e.g., administrator, employee, client). The default role assigns predefined permissions to access areas in the system.
Subsequently, the predefined permissions can be fine-tuned using the permission management system. This allows one to set up permissions (e.g., view, edit, add and delete) for different items (like projects, tasks and files).
Other than the above approaches, all other standard security measures such as firewalls, multi-level authentication, and encryption apply. Of course the project-management system should be secure, but so should the platform itself, including the operating system and the network on which it is deployed.
Accessibility. Customers must ensure that their project-management team can access the provider’s project-management system without having to make too many changes in his organization’s network or in the working habits of the team.
Accessibility to the project-management system over the web is the best option. The customers’ organization may be using firewalls, which may restrict connection to the vendor’s project-management system. Configuring the firewalls at the customer end to allow connection to the service provider’s system may not be possible given the customer’s organization’s policy. But since most organizations permit web browsing across firewalls, a web-based project-management system can be accessed without any changes in the firewalls.
The other option, which is not as viable, is to ask for access through desktop applications. This requires building applications that will run on various operating systems. Accessibility through a web browser is recommended because most operating systems come preinstalled with web browsers.
Integration. A project-management system has many sub systems such as user management, forums and instant messaging. All of these must integrate well with each other. They should also be extensible so as to integrate with third-party sub systems. More important, the service provider’s system must be able to integrate with project-management sub systems used by the customer. Depending on the customer firm’s policies, customers may insist on using their sub systems.
"Depending on the organization’s culture, customers insist that we use their bug-tracking tools because they want to use the same tool across all their service providers," says Krishna of Wipro. "In such cases, we use their tool. We integrate using technologies like web services."
Integration can be a simple process, sometimes tapping the customer’s database to store customer-specific data or exporting the data (like reports) in the customer’s preferred format. It is also possible to offload the integration to the customers by using technologies such as web services. With web services, one can expose the various modules and functions in a project-management system as a reusable service. The customer’s system can use the service, retrieve the data, and display/store it in the preferred format.
The commercial option
Many customers use their own project-management systems, especially when outsourcing to multiple providers. They not only need to track multiple projects across suppliers, but also need to identify bugs, independent of the vendor.
There are three options when building or expanding a system: buying a proprietary system, developing one from ground up or using open-source components to piece together a system.
While a proprietary package assures features and product support, it can give rise to licensing, deployment and support issues. A key issue is that these systems aren’t embedded in the cost of the service itself. Since commercial products have different licensing costs (higher or lower) for different countries, you will have to calculate these fluctuations and incorporate them in your budget. Moreover, legal regulations may not permit the export or use of the proprietary systems in specific countries causing heartburn if offshore teams operate from these countries. Lastly, commercial software company may not have an onsite support team in all the locations.
Developing a custom solution is another option, though it requires a lot of investment in terms of cost and man-hours.
Open-source project-management systems are emerging as viable options. Inexpensive open-source software is available with the source code — a customer can modify the code to change the structure of the software to suit its needs. Moreover, since open-source software runs on free and open-source operating systems such as Linux, the platform investment will be minimal. There are hundreds of open-source project-management software programs available at sourceforge.net and freshmeat.net.
Open-source software, because it has no licensing issues, is ideal for setups where a project-management system will be deployed and accessed from multiple locations. Support for open-source is through online mailing lists and discussion forums that are accessible from any location. But there may be no onsite support.
Some real-world examples of companies using open-source project-management systems are Sapient and TCS. TCS is building its next-generation global delivery system using Collabnet (collab.net), which in turn uses open-source software like Subversion. Sapient uses Sourceforge Enterprise for its project management. Sourceforge Enterprise is based on the open-source project-management system called Sourceforge that allows developers from across the world to collaborate, develop and host open-source development projects.
Customers now have more options in project-management software. The classic commercial software, new "free" open-source software and software provided by their service providers. Most likely customers will begin to try a combination of these until they arrive at the software that makes the multi-sourced, multi-project, multi-shore world just a little easier to bring under control.